October 12, 2009
Umpires seem to make the darnedest calls this postseason.
Nothing, hopefully, can top umpire Phil Cuzzi's call on Joe Mauer's(notes)
ground-rule double foul ball during Twins-Yankees, but two umps each missed a call on different parts of the same play that changed the course of the Phillies' 6-5 victory in Game 3 of the NLDS.
Granted, the calls by Jerry Meals and Ron Kulpa were tougher than Cuzzi's, but they're calls baseball players and fans have seen umpires get right time and again.
Just not this time. Again.
With the score tied 5-all in the top of the ninth and a runner at second, Chase Utley(notes) hit a chopper in front of home plate. Pitcher Huston Street(notes) made an athletic play to pick up and throw the ball, but he didn't have a clear line to first base, so Todd Helton(notes) did some fancy footwork to keep his spikes in contact with the bag.
Street's throw beat Utley but Kulpa, the first-base ump, ruled Helton wasn't touching the base. Jimmy Rollins(notes) moved to third and, a batter later, he scored the go-ahead run on Ryan Howard's(notes) fly ball to left.
Brad Lidge, white knuckles and all, got the save and the Phillies took a 2-1 edge in the best-of-five series.
Well, we've got a problem: Helton, a three-time Gold Glove winner, appeared to keep his right foot on the bag on Utley's at-bat, as the above photos show.
We've got two problems, actually: Utley's hit was a foul ball!
Meals, the plate ump, missed the ball hitting in foul territory and then off Utley's right leg as he planted in the batter's box — also foul ground — for his run to first. Though it's too late for the Rockies, Meals later admitted at least one mistake was made.
"No. 1, it wasn't seen by myself or anybody [on the umpiring crew]," Meals said, speading the blame a little. "If you look at it [on replay], you'll be able to see it ... off the front leg, got him up in the knee/thigh area. It just grazed him and the ball continued to roll the way it was rolling."
Meals said Utley sprinting to first without pausing — as batters often do when a ball hits them in the box — might have fooled the not-too-live crew.
"Chase Utley took off like it was nothing," Meals said. "He gave no indication to us that it hit him. Whatever percent of the time, you're going to get a guy that's going to stop if it hits him."
Utley was coy to reporters about it; "I'm not sure if it hit me — it was cold out there," said Utley, who added he kept running because he wasn't taking any chances.
"I've been on the wrong end of that, where the ball has hit me and I don't run, and it's an easy out," Utley said. "So I wanted to make sure that I ran hard to first."
"I was saying things, and the umpires didn't seem to see it," Tulowitzki said. "I know I thought it hit him. You'll never know unless you go back to replay or something like that."
Hint, hint about the expanded role of replay in the future. Tulo saw it, but none of the umpires could tell? How many pairs of eyes do we need to get a call right? A couple more — of the electronic kind — apparently.
Then there was the call at first base.
Admittedly, Meals had a lot to track. The ball coming into Helton's mitt; Utley's shoe pouncing on the bag; Helton's shoe maintaining contact with the bag; the swirling white towels. There was a purple dinosaur running around Coors Field, too. His own frozen breath might have obscured his vision as well.
Utley should have been sent back to the plate to finish hit at-bat. But the umpires got it wrong. And so continues the overriding, irritating subplot of the playoffs.